A lot of little things were eating at coach Mike Tice all last week, in the wake of a brutal 29-point loss at Cincinnati that left his Vikings 0-2 and searching for a way to save their season. The rejiggered coaching staff wasn't yet in sync, the play of the offensive line was awful and Daunte Culpepper had eight interceptions in eight quarters. But what bothered Tice the most was the lack of a we're-mad-as-hell chippiness in practices leading up to Sunday's home game against the Saints.
So last Saturday night, on one of the first pages of his PowerPoint presentation in a team meeting, Tice tried to inject the sense of urgency that was missing from his team by using these five words:
GET PISSED OFF!
"He got into us pretty good," one defensive player said later of Tice's rant. "He broke a couple of things."
"Only one thing," Tice insisted. "One of those white erase boards."
It would be a stretch to say that the Vikings, suitably inspired, then rose up to save their season and take the heat off their beleaguered coach. Though Minnesota stormed to a 24-0 second-quarter lead, amassed 420 yards and forced four turnovers in a 33-16 rout of road-weary New Orleans at the Metrodome, there's still plenty wrong with the Vikings--mostly on the offensive line--as they head into a tough game in Atlanta this Sunday.
The best thing about the win over the Saints was Culpepper's proving that he can make the passing game work without Randy Moss, his favorite target until the wideout was traded to the Raiders in the off-season. Culpepper completed 21 of 29 passes for 300 yards and no interceptions, hooking up with eight receivers. Without a focused, confident and prolific Culpepper, the Vikings are cooked. They might win the horrid NFC North (after three weeks the division's four teams were a combined 3-8), but they won't go anywhere in the postseason unless the passing game takes off. That's because the rushing attack is mediocre. Pro Bowl center Matt Birk is out for the year (hip surgery), and his backup, Cory Withrow, is struggling. So is rookie right guard Marcus Johnson. The cave-ins along the line make it hard to run the ball well.
There was another sign from Culpepper that his coach needed to see. Before the game Tice had told Culpepper that he liked the quarterback draw as a play deep in the red zone, perhaps at the four- or five-yard line with the Saints defense spread on a probable passing down. Midway through the fourth quarter Minnesota had third-and-six at the Saints' nine, so Tice didn't call the draw but a pass play instead. Culpepper was sacked and went to the sideline fuming because Tice didn't have enough faith in him to run the draw from the nine.
"Wasn't the right time for it," Tice told his quarterback. "Yardage was too long."
"No yardage is too long!" Culpepper snapped. "I could have made it!"
When asked about the call after the game, Culpepper smiled. "I'm just certain about my ability," said Culpepper, who goes 6'4", 264 pounds. "No way it's too long to call my number there. I can take it the distance."
That was the reaction Tice wanted, but he shouldn't have been worried about his trusted leader. Culpepper had invited all of his teammates to dinner at his house last Friday night, and about 35 of them showed up. He was embarrassed by his two-game stats, but he wasn't hiding from anyone. Before grace was said, Culpepper wanted to look into each player's eyes, and he wanted each player to look into his--to see that he was still the confident quarterback who threw 39 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions in 2004. He still thought this was a very good team and wanted to reaffirm that. "Nobody's jumping off this ship," Culpepper told the group. "Oh-and-two's nothing." Two days later they all went out and proved it.
The win was the first for the Vikings' new owner, 55-year-old New Jersey real estate developer Zygi Wilf, who remains optimistic. "We need to let the team be for a while," he said. "We've got great talent. We just have to let the momentum develop."
Tice agrees: "We have issues, but look around this league. What team doesn't have issues now?" Minnesota is 1-2 and trails only woeful Detroit (1-1) in the NFC North. There's plenty of time for the Vikings to get rolling.
LEAGUE'S TOP RUSHER
This Cadillac Is A Smooth Ride
To understand why Buccaneers rookie running back Carnell (Cadillac) Williams has a 77-yard lead in the NFL rushing race entering October, you need to know two things:
1. After being targeted back in January as Tampa Bay's first-round pick, at No. 5, he got a week's head start on learning coach Jon Gruden's complex offense.
2. He was not a holdout. By avoiding a contract squabble and being in training camp for the first practice, Williams was able to get in step with the first-team offense quicker than a typical rookie.
Even with those advantages, the immediate impact made by the 5'11", 217-pound Williams is still stunning. In his last two seasons at Auburn he split time with Ronnie Brown, a rookie with the Dolphins who was the No. 2 pick. Williams won't be sharing a job again anytime soon. With rushing totals of 148, 128 and 158 yards in his first three games as a pro (the latest in Sunday's 17-16 win over the Packers at Lambeau Field), Williams leads the league in carries (88) and yards (434). He's the workhorse back that Gruden has been searching for since taking the Bucs job in February 2002.
Gruden decided Williams was his man at last January's Senior Bowl in Mobile. The Tampa Bay staff happened to be coaching the South team, which featured Williams as a starting running back. The coaches grew to like him so much during the week of practice before the game that, fearing he might get hurt, Gruden yanked Williams after the first play of the Senior Bowl and never put him back in. "We fell in love with him as a player and a person," general manager Bruce Allen says. "He loved football; it was important to him. By the end of the week, the worst-kept secret in the NFL was that Carnell was the guy we wanted to draft."
So three months before the draft Williams had already been exposed to the shifting, motion and pass routes required of backs in Gruden's offense. And when Williams reported to camp on time, Gruden had him working with the first unit from the start. Now the question is whether a back who averaged 17.6 carries over a 42-game college career can handle 25 carries a game for 16 to 20 tests in an NFL season. Williams was averaging 29.3 carries through three games. "I'm a little sore," he said on Monday, "but overall I feel well. I think my most carries at Auburn in a game was 41, and I had 40 another game, so I'm definitely used to carrying it that much." Look for Gruden to keep feeding him the ball at the current rate.
Shakeup After A Bad Start
The 0-2 Texans seemed to be in panic mode during their bye week as they prepared to face the red-hot 3-0 Bengals. They replaced offensive coordinator Chris Palmer with offensive line coach Joe Pendry, figuring Pendry will be tougher on underachieving quarterback David Carr. Then they benched two starters--linebacker Jason Babin (18 career starts, four sacks) and cornerback Phillip Buchanon (38 games, 11 interceptions)--whom they had spent a draft fortune on.
In 2004 Houston traded three picks to Tennessee for an extra first-round pick, which it used on Babin; last April the Texans dealt two picks to Oakland for Buchanon, who was a first-rounder in '02. That's a lot to give up for such poor production. "I can't be worried about that," says Dom Capers, who has a 16-34 record in the franchise's three seasons. "[Babin and Buchanon] didn't play the way we expect."
Capers's future with the team--and G.M. Charley Casserly's as well--may depend on how much Carr improves and whether new starters Shantee Orr, at outside linebacker, and Demarcus Faggins, at corner, perform much better than Babin and Buchanon did.
The Panthers are frustrated that all-world defensive end Julius Peppers (right) has no sacks yet this year. Though he leads Carolina with 15 QB hurries, he's seeing more double-teams from running backs and tight ends, keeping him from finishing the job .... The Bills will have to sub battle-tested quarterback Kelly Holcomb for struggling starter J.P. Losman (48.1 completion percentage) if they're going to make a playoff run.... The Cardinals have allowed 96 points in three games while scoring only two TDs. "The whole thing is not working," says coach Dennis Green.... Brett Favre has seven picks in three games, and he's made his share of risky throws. But the Packers' unproductive ground attack (Ahman Green has gone 10 straight games without rushing for 100 yards) is putting more pressure than ever on Favre to produce. "They've gotten away from handing [Green] the ball, which they'd been very successful at," says Tampa Bay corner back Ronde Barber. He's right: Green is averaging 15.7 carries a game, down from 22.2 in 2003.
With Tim Rattay putting 28 and 31 points on the board in two of his starts and the 49ers offense playing respectably, it could be a while before 2005 No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith plays quarterback for San Francisco (1-2). Not exactly Smith's vision of an ideal rookie year. "My biggest fear," he says, "is accepting being Number 2." After Smith's poor showing in the preseason--20 completions in 44 attempts for 179 yards--coach Mike Nolan gave Rattay (right) the starting job and told him not to worry about getting yanked at the first sign of shaky play. At the same time, Nolan has been adamant in professing his confidence in Smith. "He's working so hard at it," Nolan says. "The other day, at about nine at night, I was walking through the [team's] facility and saw someone watching film. I looked in the room and it was Alex. I have no concerns that he'll accept being the backup."
In 2003 the Raiders were the most penalized team in the NFL, with 134 flagged infractions. In '04 they led the league again with 134 penalties. After three games this year Oakland has 36 penalties and is on pace for an NFL season-record 192. The 1998 Chiefs set the standard with 158.
HEAD TO HEAD
San Francisco versus Arizona in Mexico City
At 95,000-seat Estadio Azteca on Sunday, the Niners and the Cardinals will play the first regular-season game ever held outside the U.S. "It promises to become a milestone in the NFL's history as a global sport," said commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Well, maybe. What the game really promises to do is draw about 50,000 more people, paying $60 per seat, than would have gone to watch these teams (combined record: 1-5) at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. The Cardinals will get the usual home share of the gate receipts.
1. I'm confounded by the Lions' decision to stick with terminally shaky Joey Harrington (52.3 passer rating, 52.3 completion percentage) and rookie Dan Orlovsky at quarterback while Jeff Garcia's broken leg takes four more weeks to heal. Detroit should stop tiptoeing around Harrington's fragile psyche and sign a veteran--even Jeff George, who was brought in for a look last week despite a checkered career and his not having played since the 2001 season. At least George can throw a good deep ball.
2. Saints owner Tom Benson will have a fight on his hands if he tries to make San Antonio, a Cowboys stronghold, his team's permanent home. Other NFL owners would rather have a fourth California team, in Los Angeles, than a third in Texas--especially with San Antonio only the 37th-largest TV market in the country. If the Superdome is not usable next year, the league hopes the Saints will play in Baton Rouge as a show of loyalty to Louisiana.
3. After he kicked the 18th game-winning field goal of his 10-year career on Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Patriots' Adam Vinatieri gets my vote: He is a Hall of Fame kicker.
Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback, every week at si.com/football.